Concerts, Music

Concert Diaries: The Tune-yards, Live at the Music Box

I missed the Tune-yards when they performed at the Troubadour this July. The show was sold out, and I was not clued in yet to the complex rituals of obtaining second-hand tickets to LA concerts. Thankfully, Merrill Garbus was back in town four months later, and last Wednesday, I found myself part of the pandemonium that accompanied her Music Box performance.

Seriously, I run out of superlatives.

Picture this. Two opening sets have come and gone. The first, Pat Jordache – and what appeared to be four of his family members accompanying him on instruments, always interesting to see family bands together – had catchy hooks and a very disquieting vocal palette. (Track of note: ‘Phantom Limbs’) The second was turntablist Cut Chemist, previously known for his work with DJ Shadow and Ozomatli, who got everyone grooving to his percussion-hopping, genre-squishing vinyl shenanigans. And then Merrill comes on stage, wearing a purple dress with green papier-machey necklace and a cheerful smile that appears completely at odds with the warpaint on her face. She closes her eyes briefly, and then launches into a 3-minute vocal outburst that is part yodel, part gutteral wail, part ritualistic war-cry. The crowd roars with her. She finishes , the band has slid into positions, and they launch into the thumping ‘My Country’. The song is a propulsive, celebratory melody that made me want to run around the house, shrieking with glee, when I first heard it early this year. Hearing it live makes me grin like a maniac and frantically try record it on the phone. The band clangs on pans and utensils to get the chaotic feel of the song just right, Merrill’s voice is powerful enough to make chandeliers sway and hair stand on end. The synth line comes in, I give up futile attempts to record for posterity and just give myself up to the music.



Merrill, on stage, is funny, whimsical and so totally at ease with the complicated loops she creates on the fly, multi-layered textures of her voice for different phrases in the songs. She switches between drumsticks and a ukelele – the second ukelele performance I had seen that week, more on that later. Some of the drum loops – especially the bass thumps – are pre-programmed (I think), with the fill-ins layered by her live, and at times she even hits her microphone stand to get the right sound. The other musicians include a bassist and occasional knob-twiddler, and a saxophonist and a trumpeteer. Nothing fancy, but the overall effect is one of an insanely well-coordinated outfit that knows how to gut-punch the crowd.

Cut Chemist comes out again, joining the band on ‘Gangsta’, overlaying the song – already a catchy number – with a delicious scratch-track. Pure fucking magic. One of the best concerts I’ve seen so far, and I’ve seen pretty great bands this year. When the Tune-yards are coming back to LA – and they most definitely are – I am going again. Yes, it’s that good a band.









Björk- Crystalline

Medulla was the last Björk album I listened to with religious intensity. After that, there was a parting of ways, a stupid feeling that she had peaked and it would be embarrassing to have her newer output wash away the intensity of old. But back then, once upon a time, Björk was Music 101.  Her alien-accented voice not only turned my knees to jelly, it also represented an expansion of my consciousness. She taught me that music need not always be comforting and happiness-inducing, that it was not necessary for the words in a song to rhyme, that discordance can transport you to a new world. My knowledge and my appreciation of music became inconsequential, it felt like I knew nothing. She challenged my taste, she made me hunger, and I fell in love.

I would be distorting facts to suit the point at hand if I said that everything I subsequently listened to was because of Björk. But I’ll admit this: the kind of music I love and actively seek features female artistes twiddling knobs and going bat-shit crazy with their voices. I attribute this completely to my not-quite-adolescent slobbering over her, and the need to satisfy the musical hunger she brought into my life.

‘Crystalline’ from Biophilia, her latest album, is not a song, in my opinion. It’s a synaesthetic experience, especially if you own an iDevice. The song saw life as an App, where you had to guide a gliding object through three-dimensional tunnels, picking up crystals on the way. What you pick determined what you heard. Instead of being a distraction, the game became a mesmerizing visual interpretation of the musical experience. Suddenly, Björk has found a new way of crawling out of my headphones into the hidden places of my brain.

Side note: The tinkling chord progression that cocoons the majority of the track is played on the gameleste, a combination of the Indonesian Gamelan and the celesta that was commissioned by Björk for this album. There’s a lovely Youtube video that shows the making of the instrument, here.


It is easy to say that the last minute of the song, where the drums cut loose, is the Epic Win moment of the album. But listen closer. If the beat were a living thing, I would say that the composer almost eases it into that last minute. When the song begins, the beat tiptoes into the sound-scape tentatively, a bass kick at a time, and then tries to settle into a hissy groove. But like a petulant child that cannot decide how best to draw attention to itself, it tries to be oh-so-quiet; then froths and seethes, trying to attach itself to the loop sailing smoothly by in whatever way it can. Björk’s voice flirts again and again with the percussion in subtle ways – the rolling ‘r’ when she rhymes “with our hearts” with “quartz”, of the drawn-out sibilance of her “polygonssss”. But it is also the voice that keeps the beat in check, forcing it to morph into different rhythmic sub-explosions in course of the song as it tries to break free of the claustrophobic layers of chorus and gamelesta. Until that crucial last minute when, as the chimes fade away, the drums declare independence. It is pure, gleeful sonic destruction, and one can almost imagine her standing on one side and smiling at her creation as it lays waste to the house that the song built, the impotent sputters and fizzes transformed into violent, happy percussion patterns.

It ends the same way it begins – without warning. And I am in love again.